What food production process shocked the world

"E numbers" on food - what do they mean?

The list of E numbers seems almost infinite, leaving the consumer amazed and perhaps even shocked. Well over 300 additives are approved in Germany and Europe. Until 1993 there were only 265 in Germany. Then the laws within the EU were aligned and the number of additives increased. All of these additives have been tested by the European Food Safety Authority and are on the packaging. E "stands for Europe

In the thicket of "E numbers"

It is almost impossible for the consumer to look through the E numbers - not to mention which ingredients are behind them and how they work. Good and harmless or bad and dangerous to health? "When you are in the supermarket as a consumer, it is of course very confusing. Sometimes an" E "is written on the product, however, 'emulsifier' or 'preservative'.

The consumer then knows, for example, that a food is colored and that it doesn't look so good because of the ingredients, but because it contains coloring, "explains biologist Christian Niemeyer. He is the director of the German Museum of Additives in Hamburg. The museum opened in 2008. A supermarket is modeled on an area of ​​100 square meters. The visitor can find out which additives are currently used in which products. The pros and cons are also shown.

The German Additive Museum offers insights into the food industry

What is what and what for?

Additives are divided into different groups. These include, for example:

Dyes - They ensure that food is given an appetizing and appealing color.

Preservatives - They are intended to extend the shelf life of the product. This is achieved through bacteria, yeasts and molds. For example, food can be transported over longer distances.

Antioxidants - These include, for example, vitamin C, vitamin E, trace elements such as zinc and selenium. Some of them are complex chemical compounds that are artificially produced, but also occur in nature. They prevent or delay oxidation.

Thickeners and humectants - They make sauces creamy, soups and desserts thick and they increase the viscosity of a food. Thickeners are often used in light products because they create the popular "creamy" consistency.


They extend the shelf life of food because many microorganisms are sensitive to acids. Acidulants can also create or enhance taste.

Flavor enhancers

Various treatment methods can affect the original taste of food. Flavor enhancers intensify aromas that are only present in a weakened form.

Sugar substitutes and sweeteners

The so-called sugar substitutes are based on sweet vegetable juices, for example. Sweeteners, on the other hand, usually have no natural counterpart. They are many times sweeter than sugar, sometimes up to 3,000 times.

Away from the E numbers

Food additives are designed to improve various properties of food, but not only. "One would like to achieve an improved, technical function with these substances, for example to make production easier, for example to make [food] machine-compatible. This applies to industrially produced foods such as soups or dough," says Christian Niemeyer. "If such a substance then remains in the food, it must be labeled accordingly."

Keeping an overview is not easy

Consumers have become more critical of food in recent years. Many fear that only dangerous additives are hidden behind the E numbers. The industry reacted to this. "At the moment there is a clear trend. The industry has recognized that it is better not to write so many E-numbers in the table of contents and to use names that sound as natural as possible instead." When it comes to the word 'citric acid', for example, the consumer has a certain image in mind, "says Niemeyer.

And that should evoke a more positive association than the designation E 330. In the meantime, terms such as 'orange aroma, color carotene' can be found on many foods alongside 'stabilizers E 412, E 414 and E 445'. It would be difficult, however, if names such as quillaja extract (E 999), sodium 4-hydroxybenzoic acid methyl ester (E 219), 4-hydroxybenzoic acid methyl ester (E 218) or calcium disodium ethylenediaminetetraacetate (E 385) prevailed instead of the E numbers.

 Warning dangerous!

Some of the additives are chemically produced and pose health risks. Limit and tolerance values ​​have been set for a number of additives, and they are enshrined in law. Many of the additives in food are suspected of causing allergies or promoting the development of cancer.

Some substances have now been banned or consumed with extreme caution. This includes the dye amaranth (E 123), [not to be confused with the plant of the same name] an artificial substance. It is resistant to light, heat and acids, and - it has been shown to be mutagenic. Amaranth can also trigger pseudo-allergies. Nevertheless, the substance is still approved, even if only for a few foods. These are liqueurs, spirits and caviar. The German Museum for Additives rates the substance as "unpleasant".

Some additives are suspected of being cancerous

Boric acid can be really dangerous, but you can still use it. It is an artificial substance that preserves food. Boric acid can accumulate in the body and even cause organ damage. But - don't worry, boric acid also has good properties. In the household it does a good job as a mild disinfectant.

So it's no wonder that it can cause nausea and vomiting at high concentrations. As an additive, E 284 - boric acid or borax - is still approved as an additive for real caviar in order to achieve a longer shelf life. We learn from a paper from the German Museum for Additives: "Borax is used as a herbicide and as an insecticide against ants, fleas and cockroaches."

However, this is only a small selection of additives that can be harmful to health. This also includes the dye E 110: yellow orange. It ensures an intense color in wine gum, salmon substitute or cheese, but can also be the cause of kidney tumors - according to the results of animal experiments.

The substance can also be the cause of asthma and neurodermatitis. There is also tin-II-chloride (E 512). It serves as a color stabilizer. Consumer advice centers advise against consuming larger quantities.

The German Additive Museum documents the whole variety of E numbers


The interactions that individual additives have with one another have not yet been well researched. The same applies to the simultaneous consumption of additives and medication. It is also unknown how many of the substances affect children. Sweets in iridescent colors are particularly attractive to the little ones. It is also crucial what amounts the children consume. Because especially with them, larger amounts can trigger allergies and affect the immune system.

"There are of course substances that are known to be not metabolized as well by the body and that certain dyes can promote allergies. There are certain emulsifiers that are suspected of affecting the intestinal membrane. Some have substances in the last Years ago, "explains Niemeyer.

Nothing new

The following applies to children: the more colorful, the better

Additives have not only been around for a few years. "Additives have accompanied mankind from the very beginning of advanced civilizations. Even back then, people used a wide variety of substances and tried to stretch or make food more beautiful. So it is not a phenomenon of the emerging food industry," says Niemeyer.

What would the cake be without baking powder and a strawberry ice cream without strawberry flavor? Nothing without the additives! But the ultimate taste experience and the attractive appearance of food can also come at a price - at least if the food is consumed uncritically. For example, the packaging of a large, colorful lollipop reads: "May impair activity and attention in children". Parents and children should perhaps better forego the tempting sweets.

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